In his opening day speech to the Washington state Legislature this year, Gov. Jay Inslee stated that “homelessness is a statewide problem.” Once thought of as an issue that only large cities needed to solve, homelessness has become something that even rural areas such as Battle Ground need to address.
As a district, our primary goal is to help all of our students be successful no matter what their circumstances may be. The number of homeless families with students in our schools fluctuates from year to year and often depends on many factors such as the state of the local economy.
Under a federal program called McKinney-Vento, we receive some funding to serve students who “lack fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” Under that definition, we also work with a number of students who are categorized as unaccompanied homeless youth or “students who are not residing with their parent or legal guardian.” It is these unaccompanied homeless youth, or UHY, that has us most concerned, because we have seen their numbers increase dramatically since 2016, especially those UHY who are seniors in our high schools.
Since 2016 we have seen our homeless student population, as identified by McKinney-Vento, range from 1.5 to 2.5 percent (between 180 and 375 students) of our entire student population. Our unaccompanied homeless youth comprise about a third of our homeless students.
We use many resources at the district and building level to serve our homeless students. Our Family and Community Resource Center, under the guidance of Lydia Sanders, coordinates everything from food, transportation and temporary housing to school supplies, counseling, and more. With the help of the Battle Ground Education Foundation, our district has been able to obtain additional funding to provide needed support to our UHY students working towards graduation.
Thanks initially to grant funding, and now as part of our yearly budget, we have hired advocates in our Family and Community Resource Center to work with UHY at all of our high schools. The advocates help to remove barriers for these students so they can focus and stay in school. This starts first and foremost with building positive, targeted, caring relationships with these UHY, many of whom do not trust adults. Once initial trust is established, the advocates help the youth to identify their immediate needs (such as food, medical care, or clothes) as well as their longer term goals (passing a class or getting a job). The advocates then refer the UHY students to our mentoring program, which matches volunteer mentors with youth and stresses the importance of modeling healthy relationships and guidance in handling life’s everyday challenges.
Our two advocates, Yvette Elrod and Jenneen Trafton, remove barriers and assist students in advocating for themselves through tasks such as acquiring state identification, social security cards, birth certificates, and other documentation The advocates also refer students (starting with 18-21 year olds) to our newly created Earn and Learn Program.
Funded by a donation from the Price Foundation and Cascades Presbyterian Church to the Battle Ground Education Foundation, the Earn and Learn Program matches students with jobs and mentors at local businesses. During their employment, the students learn job skills and have an opportunity to earn high school credit through our work-based learning program.
Our most recent data shows that the efforts by our advocates to mentor and support our homeless youth has paid off with an increase in the academic performance of these students. From 2016 to 2019, the number of our McKinney-Vento students graduating has increased by 41 percent, and the number of our unaccompanied homeless youth getting their diplomas has increased by 71 percent.
With powerful mentoring and advocacy, we are not just throwing resources at the statewide issue. Rather, we are equipping our students with the skills, training and self-confidence they need to be their own best resource.
Once again, I want to thank you for your continued partnership and support of our mission to help all of our students find successful pathways in life.
Mark Ross is superintendent for Battle Ground Public Schools.